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In response to Michael Meacher: what Labour narrative?

1945_lets_build_quick_bThere my be an element of wishful thinking in Michael Meacher’s recent post on Left Futures, A clear Labour narrative is emerging, but key gaps need filling.  A few good policies, such as the repeal of the bedroom tax or an energy price freeze does not constitute a narrative. In fact, without such an over-arching ideology there is a real danger that a few good policies will lack any credibility.

The Tories have a clear narrative. Labour in office were primarily responsible for the economic crisis thanks to profligate spending. Tory spending cuts are the medicine to put the economy back on track, even if they hit the most vulnerable in society. The accompanying rhetoric that demonises welfare recipients, penalises young people and scapegoats migrants is underpinned by the fact that these sections of the population are either unlikely to vote or unlikely to vote Tory.

But how different is Labour’s narrative? Its focus on “hard-working families” implicitly excludes many on benefits. Its support for the Coalition’s welfare cap explicitly concedes the argument that benefit levels are the problem – rather than poverty pay, which forces people in work to top up their incomes with welfare.

Labour could tackle the demonisation of migrants head-on. Why should it take a talk radio host to expose the racism behind UKIP’s line, echoed by the Tories? A clear rejection of this nasty politics and defence of the right to asylum and would be not only right, but also popular with many, especially young, voters. A recent poll showed 80% of first time voters supported such a stance. Instead Labour abstained on the second reading of the recent Immigration Act, an unpleasant piece of legislation which, among other things, requires doctors’ receptionists to check the immigration status of patients before allowing them treatment. The front bench’s recent announcement for compulsory training for 16-18 year olds further drives young people away from our Party at a time when they when should be queuing up to vote Labour after the Coalition’s trebling of tuition fees and abolition of EMA and when surveys show that young people especially reject the dominant anti-immigrant narrative.

The yawning hole in Labour’s narrative remains on the economy. Ed Balls’ keenness to reassure people that he is not “anti-business” – or rather, anti-big business bosses – has led to some alarming policy positions. Last year’s Labour Party Conference unanimous vote to renationalise Royal Mail and the railways was being rubbished by Labour’s front bench within minutes of it being announced. Ed Balls’ more recent speeches reaffirm a commitment to cut welfare and continue with Coalition fiscal austerity. As Diane Abbott pointed out recently:

The problem with restoring Labour’s reputation for economic management is that we have allowed the coalition to frame the debate.”

With less than a year to the next general election, the mood among Labour MPs and trade union leaders is already one of “don’t rock the boat” – a key message from Len McCluskey to the recent Unite Conference. But make no mistake: Labour’s right wing will continue to rock as hard as they can to pursue their policy agenda, as Peter Mandelson’s repeated attacks make all too clear. They have a narrative: it’s the rehabilitation of Tony Blair – the three times elected architect of New Labour, who ran the country so well until his one “mistake” on Iraq, which unfortunately exposed him as a lying, neoconservative war criminal.

There is a real need to make a real balance sheet of the opportunities squandered in the New Labour years – the failure to rebuild a manufacturing base despite a strong economy, the refusal to cut inequality and reduce child poverty, these must all be reckoned with, before too much ground is ceded to the those in the Blair nostalgia industry. But the immediate task is to contest and argue for a real progressive narrative for Labour in 2015 if we are to stand any chance of winning a majority government. Putting on a semblance of unity while the right wing continue to set the agenda could be a recipe for failure.

5 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with most of Mike Phipps points. I had a broadly similar reaction when I read Michael Meacher’s piece. Mike is right, Labour does not have a narrative. That is because, as he indicates, that it does not have a clear programme for social change or clear social analysis to go with such a programme.

    I don’t agree on one point. There is nothing wrong in principle with requiring people in receipt of unemployment benefit to do something to make themselves more employable. Apart from that though I agree with the points made.

    Labour is visibly floundering as it tries to hone a message which has no principles behind it other than to try to retain as much support of its traditional supporters as possible while, at the same time, working to show the rich that its “responsible capitalism” will allow them to go on making profits pretty much on the same basis as they do now.

    The dithering over railways and education show just how theoretically weak Labour is and the extent that its principles are none other than another version of neo-liberalal marketism. Labour is not on the verge of a new golden progressive dawn however much Michael Meacher and other commentators might wish that it were the case.

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      “There is nothing wrong in principle with requiring people in receipt of unemployment benefit to do something to make themselves more employable.”
      Yes there is , “requiring” means a level of force needs to be applied otherwise it’s just a suggestion. This “force” is the benefits sanction regime we see at present which has a number of perverse outcomes.
      1. The service providers have a forced and captive client base, so there’s no need to provide quality training programmes that would attract participants
      2. Forcing people to engage in training or self immprovement is counter-productive, it just breeds resentment.
      3. the sanctioning system poisons the relationship between the provider and the user or recipient.
      4. The whole sanctioning system comes at a huge cost to chase people down and punish them.
      Perhaps you didn;t mean to use the word “require”, but I’d prefer a system that requested and encouraged rather than “required”.

  2. Dan Filson says:

    I wholly agree that use of the phrase “hard-working” by Labour, Ed himself indeed, is most regrettable with all the sheep and goats implications, seemingly intentionally meant.

    if the public are giving Ed low ratings it s not least because they senses lack of bite in the political agenda he sets and a tendency to do Cameron-lite when pushed instead of being bloody, bold and resolute (Fail? We’ll not fail, we’ll our courage to the sticking plate and we’ll not fail!)

  3. Robert says:

    Hard working, not sick disabled or unlucky enough to come back alive or disabled from war zones.

    Tory Or Labour , tell me the difference and I might state if I will vote for them.

    I do not think Miliband has a stone hole in hell chance in winning if he does I will jump off the local bridge.

    Miliband looks to be a nice enough bloke but he has damaged himself to often his stupid holding up the sun news paper was not the first time he has done it in fact he’s done in four times.
    And his antics with the Unions well boy that was hilarious.

    But to be honest I just cannot for the life of me seeing the public with him winning people may not think he’s the brightest in the box, but he is mistake prone.

    As a disabled person I’m not even going to bothering vote for the Tories or labour and the Liberal dear god no, so it does not leave much.

    Progress or the Tories that is the offer…. neither.

  4. Rai says:

    For some reason, Labour seem to still be fighting the 1992 election. Maybe they need to lose again before they realise times have changed. Or maybe it’ll have to wait till the next financial crisis.

    I shudder to think what the Bullingdon mafia will have done to the country by then though.

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